“Miss Emily,” by Nyala O’Connor. (Penguin)
MISS EMILY

By Nuala O’Connor

Penguin. 239 pp. Paperback, $16

Nuala O’Connor’s lovely novel, “Miss Emily,” immerses us in the day-to-day drama of a fictional, spirited Irish maid who comes to work for the Dickinsons of Amherst in 1866 and stirs up their reclusive poet-in-residence. Told in alternating chapters by the title character and her maid, it pulls us in from its first limpid lines and then detonates with an explosion of power — much like Emily Dickinson’s poems.

“Miss Emily” introduces American readers to O’Connor, who has published prize-winning fiction under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir in her native Ireland. It features a goal-oriented Belle of Amherst, who not only flouts convention by refusing to marry and rarely venturing outside the homestead, where she lives with her parents and sister Vinnie, but who defiantly holds Darwin above God and her writing above everything. O’Connor’s poet may be withdrawn from the world at large, but she is intensely engaged in her writing and her small circle of acquaintances.

That circle includes Ada Concannon, the Dickinsons’ “lively and capable” new maid-of-all-work. Declaring this minimally educated Irish servant her friend is yet another way that Miss Emily challenges the prejudices and customs of her time while appealing to the more liberal sensibilities of ours.

Seventeen-year-old Ada is a wonderful character. Fresh from Dublin, she is talkative, religious, superstitious, “ripe and flushed with energy.” The oldest of seven girls and a survivor of “the Hunger,” Ada has been brought up to work uncomplainingly: baking cakes with lemon brandy, scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, coaxing eggs from balky hens, catering to fussy Mrs. Dickinson’s demands and keeping spotless the white dresses Emily insists on wearing. Descriptions of all these menial activities add rich texture to this historical novel.

Ada is the kind of girl who attracts suitors — and trouble — yet accepts her station in life without complaint. When she suffers abuse — in a plot development we can smell from afar, like the chamber pots — she meekly shoulders the guilt. But Miss Emily, so outraged by the unfairness of Ada’s situation, surprises everyone by venturing outside her comfort zone in defense of her young friend.

A more surprising aspect of O’Connor’s novel is that the voice of the Irish maid is more engaging than that of the famous poet. Ada’s story arouses ready sympathy and indignation over her mistreatment. In contrast, Miss Emily comes across as a sensitive if somewhat self-indulgent soul, repeatedly bemoaning her busy sister-in-law’s divided attention, extolling “chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words” and justifying her need for withdrawal because “the rustling passions of life are contained more truly for me in the words of poetry than in the everyday world.”

“Miss Emily” considers what happens when the delicate poet confronts such “rustling passions” head on. Despite its somewhat predictable narrative arc, the novel captivates with its high emotions and rich images, many of which, like “a sugared Amherst,” carry echoes of Dickinson’s poems and letters.

By giving plucky Ada the last word with an image readers will easily recognize as the poet’s, O’Connor suggests that the connection between Miss Emily and her maid was indeed reciprocal. Hope, Ada comments, “may be small and bald at first, but then it gathers feathers to itself and flies on robust wings.” So, too, does O’Connor’s quietly soaring novel.

McAlpin reviews books for The Washington Post, NPR.org and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.

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